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Now! Visual Culture - some afterthoughts

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 07.06.2012 (07:00).


It’s been two years since the launch of the International Association for Visual Culture in London (see our field report of May 30, 2010), and last weekend the follow-up convention took place at Cooper Square in lower Manhattan. Organized by Nick Mirzoeff at the NYU, the event was named “Now! Visual Culture,” a title which almost sounded like some kind of rejoinder to that of the “Farewell to Visual Studies” symposium hosted by the Stone Summer Theory Institute (as its last) in July 2011. While undeniably inhabiting more or less the same academic field – and taking place only ten months apart – there was little overlap between the two seminars in terms of subject matter and scope. Pretty much the only allusion to the earlier event was the convener’s concluding remarks after the first session; “some people say farewell to visual studies – we say farewell to them.” As the moniker so explicitly put forward, the order of the day was the question of the contemporary, of the contemporaneous moment, and so both the past and the future of visual culture studies were really not so much on the agenda in New York.

The gathering kicked off on Thursday afternoon with a series of lightning talks (a format perhaps inspired by New Media conventions), the first of which was Øyvind’s on the events of July 22 (see entry above). In a virtual deluge of mini-lectures that also included a Skype transmission, this opening session crystallized many of the themes and preoccupations that would dominate conversations the following days. Marita Sturken talked about efforts to commemorate fallen soldiers, to catalog and make visible the dead, in the face of powerful mechanisms of erasure. Noting that the war in Iraq has come to be seen as a defining event of contemporary visual culture, Sturken spoke engagingly and perceptively of the ongoing strategies of counter-visuality at work to confer visibility upon the victims as well as the larger reality of the war itself. Many of the ensuing presentations seemed to revolve around two topical clusters in particular; one regarding what we might call “the digital visual moment” and the other manifesting the increasing fascination on part of the visual culture community with the discourse of Occupy. In one of the session’s most involving contributions David Darts talked about surveillance cameras, practices of hiding, the interdisciplinary media artist Hasan M. Elahi’s project Tracking Transience, and how in the future “everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.” Darts is also the creator of a file-sharing device, the PirateBox, for the discreet dissemination of data and communication. Wendy Chun’s address was roughly in the same area, demonstrating a concern with the illusion of privacy and security on the Internet. Chun underscored the fact that computers do not simply reproduce images but in fact generate them, and that they are sending and storing information even when the user isn’t active. Other presenters emphasized the need to look inside the digital media device rather than at it (Bernard Geoghegan and Lisa Nakamura, the latter also pointing out that the labor required to assemble the digital apparatus often is supplied by poorly paid women workers). The other vital thread had a distinct activist undercurrent. Jill Casid focused on the “imperative mood” in a time of institutional crisis and the need to occupy art history; Diana Taylor was interested in the critical potential of the imbrication of performance art and visual culture, and insisted that seeing can also be a doing; Stephen Monteiro talked about visual culture in terms of occupation/unoccupation as well as about the desire to be undisciplined in order to be able to recognize and critique structures of power; Dena Al-Adeeb discussed among other things Malek Alloula’s Colonial Harem – about turn of the century French postcards of Algerian women – in the context of transnationalism and transdisciplinarity, stressing the importance of challenging Eurocentric notions of visual culture; and Awam Amkpa’s subject was the efficacy of photography as a vibrant medium of social activism and how Occupy Nigeria put 14 million people in the streets of Lagos to protest rises in the country’s gas prices. 

Over the next two days there were about ten workshops on a variety of topics, ranging from the student debt crisis to interdisciplinarity, the practice of visual culture, the object of visual culture studies, feminism and technology, publishing and diasporic Asian visual culture. Unfortunately, I missed the session on “Debt, Academic Labor and the Crisis of the Knowledge Economy,” but Invisible Culture has published a fine blog essay on it, here. One of the most productive workshops, in my opinion, was the one chaired by Safet Ahmeti on Friday afternoon. Taking as its starting point the recognition that interdisciplinary work is always practiced and concrete, the panel broached an eclectic range of issues, from the politics of the black bloc to the historical transformations of women’s bodies and its encoded meanings, and to the methodological challenges of transdisciplinary collaborations between bioscientists and humanistic scholars. In an environment perhaps not too keen on theory, this panel also contained two of this conference’s most sophisticated instances of theoretical analysis: Allen Feldman’s dense reflection on the complex relation between the visible and the invisible in the management of the war on terror, and Joanna Zylinska’s rearticulation of the ontological question of visual culture in terms of ethics. In her talk, Zylinska suggested that we shift our attention from the objects of visual culture to processes of what she calls biomediation, which seem to encapsulate both the Mitchellian notion of the animistic image and the act of mediating life through visual culture forms. A particularly salient concept that informed this presentation was that of the cut, and how a cut is made in the creative flow of life and mediation. To cut well might be a practice imbued with an array of ethical implications, extending as it does the problems of alterity and the question of who and what has a right to become an image. By talking about the ethics rather than the ontology of visual culture, Zylinska adroitly gestured toward an intellectual framework that promises to resonate well with the call for a renewed engagement and activism that characterized the weekend’s proceedings.

Highlighting forms of visual culture practice seems to have been an overriding ambition for this convention, and at least three more panels were in various ways dedicated to exploring work in this area: the Friday seminar simply called “The Practice of Visual Culture” that featured talks by practitioners in the field, the Saturday morning workshop on the object in visual culture studies, and finally the panel on the future of publishing. The session on “Locating the Object in Visual Culture Studies” showcased objects and practices that have been rather marginal to the field of art history and that also straddle both visual and material culture (in two of the cases, anyhow), design, fashion and illustration. The artist talks were all quite thought provoking and certainly succeeded in showing how artistic practice itself can constitute a form of intellectual inquiry. Wafaa Bilal’s ethically confrontational and interactive performance project Domestic Tension brought zones of conflict and comfort into distressing contact with each other. For a whole month, the artist locked himself inside a small room and invited viewers to shoot at him using remote-controlled paintball guns and a camera hooked up to the web. Also fascinating were artist and NYU professor Natalie Jeremijenko’s many projects at the intersection of experimental design, new technology, urban studies, environmental ethics and public and participatory art. The third kind of practice-oriented session, finally, was about something that affects most of us present and that also happens to be in the midst of a series of (often painful and confusing) transformations, namely the art of publishing. A rich panel organized by the Journal of Visual Culture, “Futures of Visual Culture Publishing” brought together people with vast expertise in the matter – Sina Najafi, founding editor of Cabinet; Katherine Behar, web editor of Art Journal; Gary Hall from the Open Humanities Press; Tara McPherson from Vectors/Scalar; and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy and director of scholarly communications for MLA). I won’t try to paraphrase the fertile discussions that took place in this session, but some of the most significant issues touched upon, in my view, were (in no particular order) the conflict between the business model of scholarly publishers and the dissemination of free knowledge, the multiple challenges that emerge from the rapidly changing technological landscape (for instance the curse of the standardized platform; Najafi told us about an app developed by Cabinet that of course cannot be distributed to iTunes except through Apple), questions of authorship and originality, how publishing in fundamental ways shapes how we work, act and think as academics, the question whether online publishing promotes tenure, how certain journals are capable of identifying and defining new scholarly fields, how new forms such as the video-essay may alter the way in which we study the image, the move toward more collaborative and transdisciplinary forms of publishing, the future of the referee system, the imposition of natural science models on humanistic publishing, and last but not least, the changing role of the journal editor. Given the fact that both referees and editors significantly contribute to emerging scholarship on a regular basis, it seems rather inexplicable that their labor goes largely uncredited and unpaid.

As the conference neared its end on Saturday afternoon, Giuliana Bruno and W.J.T. Mitchell kindly offered their perspectives on “Now! Visual Culture” in a concluding talkback session. Admitting that the event was impossible to summarize, Bruno nevertheless observed that the discursive spaces opened up by this event involved, among other things, the relationship between the visible and the invisible, the public and the private and the transparent and the opaque. She also identified three areas of particular importance to her: the question of history in relation to visual culture, the materiality of the object, and surface and design. One question she posed concerned history and the archive and the ways in which the contemporary incorporates the traces of the past. Urging us to make interventions in the archive, Bruno also brought up the question of the methodology of visual studies. She also sensed that there was a longing for the material, for the physicality of the object, in some of the discussions. In conclusion, Bruno suggested that we should rethink the notion of the image in relation to that of the screen, the surface.

The question regarding history and temporality was immediately seized by Mitchell too, as he endeavored to connect the “now” of the conference with two past “nows:” that of 1968 and 1992. Cautiously optimistic, Mitchell claimed that part of the spirit of that remarkable year, 1968, may have returned to us, evidenced in the augmented vitality of political activism globally, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement. Where demonstrations have a rather limited temporality, he noted, occupations as a form of social and political protest indicate that the demonstration won’t end. Two and a half decades on from 1968 the new approach of visual culture is in full development, challenging a particular distribution of the sensible – the disciplinary and epistemological hegemony of art history. In 1992, Mitchell presented his influential essay “What is Visual Culture?” at Princeton in memory of Erwin Panofsky’s 100th birthday, which he sees as an undisciplined and possibly anarchistic response to the discipline of art history. In 1992 the concept of visual culture promised a certain liberation from the canon, as new subjects of scholarly research such as fashion, design, illustration, video games and more were started to be seen as legitimate. Back in 1992, Mitchell recalls, scholars of the visual were preoccupied both with spectacle (Debord) and surveillance (Foucault), whereas in 2012, or at least in the context of this conference, there has been little critique of the former. Maybe we have reached a state, Mitchell proposes, where nobody believes in the spectacle anymore? Following on from that he goes on to mention another phenomenon that was there twenty years ago but now seems to have vanished, namely semiotics. On the other hand, a lot of things that are here now weren’t there in 1992: the Internet, social media, the October questionnaire and a much altered relationship to the art sphere. Two decades ago, the nascent field was influenced by artists that could not care less about visual culture (the minimalists, the performance artists, the word-image artists), whereas the contemporary version of visual culture has absorbed artistic practice to a much larger extent as an intrinsic part of the field.

If I were to condense some of my impressions from this event, if certain tendencies could be pinpointed, it would go something like this: 

* The conference site was not very far from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, so it makes sense that the influence from the Occupy movement on the conference was formidable. On his blog, Mirzoeff even had to specify that “Now! Visual Culture” is “not an occupy event as such but it takes place in the context of Occupy.” Many of the talks referred directly to Occupy and even those that didn’t were suffused with its basic sensibility. For someone who was a student during the complacent, introspective, irony-drenched and rather decadent 1990s, this is good news. The activist current feels reinvigorating and I agree with Mirzoeff that we need to get out of the university. If I have a reservation, however, it would be that a scholarly association such as IAVC should be careful not to be seen as indistinguishable from the movement. It needs to be more heterogeneous than that, since not all the epistemological gaps that visual culture scholars seek to fill are necessarily related to Occupy. Moreover, I don’t much care for the implication that visual culture by dint of its anarchic impulses should have some kind of particular responsibility with regard to “getting out of the university.” The commitment to the most pressing political challenges of our time is one that applies to all academic quarters, from the humanities to the natural sciences, from the disciplinary to the indisciplinary. Finally, I do worry a little bit that the commendable activist initiative could be too much a product of this particular “now” that we are in, that it will never last, but I certainly hope that future conventions will dispel these doubts.

*  The visual culture community’s understanding of itself as self-consciously anti-disciplinary was very much re-affirmed by the discussions that took place during the event. If memory serves it was Mitchell who brought up the term “epistemological anarchism” in his talkback.

* Performativity is on the rise. There was a marked sense of a turning away from the object/medium to the process and from theory to practice-based research.

* The question of the contemporary versus the historical came up on several occasions in the course of the conference (and with that title, how could it not?). I have to say that I was struck by the overwhelming gravitation toward the immediate present (and this is coming from someone whose research nowadays is mostly on contemporary objects).

* Perhaps to reiterate a point alluded to above: if the “Now! Visual Culture” event is anything to go by, we seem to be headed back toward a post-theory period. The last decade or so has seen a kind of rebirth of inventive and sophisticated theory in many fields, not the least in visual culture and cinema and media studies, but with a few exceptions this wasn’t much in evidence in New York. I might simply have missed them, but where were the references to, off the top of my head, the work of theorists such as Lauren Berlant, Davide Panagia, Brian Massumi, the most recent Kaja Silverman? 

* Finally, whatever happened to the aesthetic dimension, to quote a philosopher whose thinking seems quite compatible with the new activism but whose name was also curiously absent from the conference discussions? The good old cultural studies tradition wasn’t always very welcoming vis-à-vis the aesthetic; I have to say that, brilliant as some of the conversations at “Now! Visual Culture” seminar were, at times it did make me feel that I was present at a cultural studies conference.


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